Demos’ public services report compounds problems

Demos’ latest report from the “Progressive Conservatism Project” focuses on local leadership, empowerment of front line staff to innovate, and cutting back bureaucratic waste. As a general approach, Demos’s analysis hits some worthwhile points. Unfortunately the report, aimed at Conservative policy makers, reverts to ideology from roughly the second sentence where the authors claim that public services “do not give us what we want.”

The authors broad dismissal of the public sector is based on surveys of public perception. This both misinterprets the evidence and paradoxically perpetuates the trend. Talking down public services both reduces morale and, when reported in the media, gives the impression that things are worse than they are. As this chart from the NHS Confederation shows public satisfaction trails patient satisfaction. This is not to say that services are as good as they could or should be, but this approach to public opinion is misleading.

The report also refers to restructuring organisations and changing the regulatory architecture (slightly ironic for a report criticising constant change). Sometimes it is useful for a think tank to simplify a problem, but the solutions proposed take the thought out of thought-provoking. The National Audit Office is an organ of Parliament, not government, allowing elected MPs to hold the executive to account and the Audit Commission is an independent body that ensures public money is not wasted or stolen. Abolishing these bodies would reduce our ability to ensure purchasers, users and voting citizens can be assured that providers are not running off with the money.

Similarly, the recommendation for devolving budgets to service lines is already happening across the NHS. But this requires more, not less management. ‘Removing middle managers’ is a tabloid slogan not a policy recommendation unless you want brain surgeons doing their own books. Processes could be streamlined, duplication removed, and management improved, but that would require more detailed knowledge and research.

Behind the bluster and hyperbole, there are some more constructive thoughts from the “red Tories.” They are right that staff morale and professionalism are recognised as being key to improvement (and efficiency), and some reforms have disillusioned front line staff, crowding out their knightly motivations. Government has recognised this. There are examples where staff engagement has been used as the means to organisational transformation, and the ‘new professionalism’ features strongly in the current Cabinet Office public service reform agenda. But again the report runs behind the policy and the evidence.

What is more bizarre is the claim that the private sector can pick the best people, while the low status public sector gets the leftovers. Top graduates seem to disagree. While the attractiveness of City firms plummeted in the most recent Times Top 100 graduate employers survey, the civil service, NHS, teaching and BBC are all in the top 10, despite more modest salaries.

So maybe things are not as doom and gloom as Demos make out. There is a lot of talk at the moment about the need for efficiencies in public services. Progressives should be angry about waste and poor quality where services let people down. But the fact that future public service budgets will ultimately have to suffer to bail out recent market failures should not open the door for conservatives to dismiss the progress that has already been made improving services. It is right to revisit reforms to ensure that they harness rather than crowd out professionalism, and to free up local innovation and leadership. But throwing around simplistic slogans – public services are failing so sack the managers and auditors – does not move the debate on for progressives, and is likely to compound the problems of public perception and staff morale.

2 Responses to “Demos’ public services report compounds problems”

  1. Shamik Das

    RT @leftfootfwd: Demos’ public services report compounds problems:- http://bit.ly/etOKY

  2. Peter Edwards

    The restructuring of public services will be a big political issue at the next election. One idea, is granting frontline staff more power. But there seems to be some confusion over where this idea for ‘Leading from the Front’ originated. Back in June 2009, Jamie Bartlett of Demos and Phillip Blond, previously of Demos but now director of ResPublica, launched a project with this exact name at NESTA. Two days ago, a report with the same title has appeared from Demos, authored by two unknowns, while Phillip Blond and John Seddon (a well-known authority on public service reform) are appearing at a NESTA event at the Conservative Party Conference in Manchester, entitled, Leading from the Front.

    Hopefully the work by NESTA will be, in contrast to Demos’, coherent, well considered, correctly referenced and containing a logical argument. Demos proposed abolishing the Audit Commision and promised to show ‘the real cost savings that could be achieved if a range of reforms were introduced.’ Infuriatingly for an auditor, they omit any detail of ‘real cost savings’. They have managed to get press coverage by crudely calling for the abolition of quangos, yet to quote from their own report; the work of auditing and inspection bodies is ‘an important endeavour because public money needs to be spent well and services need to be checked.’ They talk of giving frontline staff more freedom, but with freedom comes risk, and, caught in a contradiction, the authors are forced to admit that the ‘central concern for governments is, rightly, to reduce various types of risk’, and that this is ‘the function of our auditing and inspection bodies.’ After wading through what is an incredibly badly written report, one sees that the authors are not calling for the abolition of auditing, just reform, examining outcomes rather than process. They even have the audacity to quote from a survey by the National Audit Office which shows that ‘few public sector employees [have] ever been asked to make a contribution to how their organisation works’. Abolish the quango and you abolish the information that is necessary to identify problems and improve service.

    The contradictions continue. In another section of the report, now auditing is not required because ‘people are not just motivated by the drive for profit and personal success but also out of genuinely virtuous motives and the desire for excellent.’ But wait. Some public servants ‘are lazy, selfish and incompetent.’ At the centre of this report is a fundamental contradiction, probably attributable to the authors’ lack of experience in public sector reform. On the one hand they want to radically call for greater freedom for frontline staff while pandering to the general backlash against Quangos and bureaucrats. But on the other they have provided absolutely no framework for ensuring these newly independent public servants perform. That is why they concede that ‘Tight regulation from Whitehall, or from Quangos like Ofsted or the Audit Commission does allow for the identification of failing services and is an important instrument to intervene when councils or schools are seriously under performing.’ Seeing this contradiction, they backtrack and claim that ‘it is possible to combine front-line freedom and autonomy with public accountability’. They consider giving service-users a voice. But where will people obtain the ‘high quality information’ which they require in order ‘to make informed decisions’ if all the quangos have been culled? The report suggests that ‘Where high performers are delivering, they should be left to get on with it. Where they do not, inspection and bodies should have stronger powers than they currently do to intervene.’ But how do we measure ‘high performance’ or identify low performance with no auditing process? Without comparison between the best and worse, how can the gap in performance possibly be bridged? Perhaps this is not what the Progressive Conservatives want. The report dismisses the (one year) Postgraduate Certificate in Education, and calls for initial teacher training to be increased to at least three years. This is for the under-performers. For the high performers, such as Mr Olliff-Cooper, one of the report’s authors, additional training doesn’t appear necessary: he taught history at Eton College for two years despite not having studied for a PGCE. Devolving power to the frontline in public services is a worthy goal, but it will be a delicate process, one requiring a fine balance between freedom to innovate, accountability, and a framework for when innovation fails. This requires a far more nuanced vision than the one offered by Demos. Perhaps NESTA will tell us?

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